“Children from all backgrounds will create a new vision for Colombia”

Photo: Jacobs Foundation
Photo: Jacobs Foundation

Nathalia Mesa, Chairman of aeioTU, tells us about empowering children to build a new democratic future in Colombia.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What is the biggest issue for children in Colombia?

Nathalia Mesa: Colombia is a young country: We have 4.2 million children and half of those are living in extreme poverty. If we have half of our next generation not being well nourished, without appropriate living conditions, how do we expect to have a better future?

We have to break barriers and bring low-income and high-income people together to build the future, but in Colombia that’s not normal yet. I have this “mother passion” – as a woman, as a mom, and as a Colombian. I want to work for the children and bring the best to the poorest.

Normally, the higher income people get the best of everything: materials, teachers, technology. But at aeioTU we can fulfil the dream of bringing the best to all. Part of our funding strategy is to cross-subsidize. That’s why I was so pleased that when my daughter turned two, she could go to an aeioTU center where families are charged for the services, and those funds helped aeioTU serve other children that cannot afford it. Over the last ten years, 1197 children in paid centers have helped subsidize 1279 other children.

CSG: Why did you choose the Reggio Emilia learning model for aeioTU?

NM: When I looked at early childhood models in the US, I went to several very good Reggio Emilia-inspired schools and I realized this is what we need in Colombia because we’re building a democracy. Our team connected with the Reggio Emilia philosophy: empowerment, community building, democracy, the use of art. I’m not interested in promoting a curriculum that creates new employees; I want new citizens. Reggio Emilia started after the Second World War in Italy, so it’s very similar to the situation we’re living in today in Colombia.

CSG: Is life in Colombia after the peace accords like rebuilding after a war?

NM: In some ways, yes. We’ve been part of the peace process since we started because we see aeioTU as a way of creating educational spaces where children can deal with their traumas and can create a new vision for Colombia. We believe that schools are like bubbles where children experience peace, good relationships, creativity, the fascination with their own identity, the music, the food…  so that when they go back to their house which might be violent, poor, or sad, they know that there are other ways.

Our idea from the beginning was to empower children so that they can transform Colombia into a more peaceful, democratic, and sustainable society.

“I’m not interested in promoting a curriculum that creates new employees; I want new citizens.”

CSG: Was it difficult to get teachers in Colombia to follow a new philosophy?

NM: Working at aeioTU is challenging: As a teacher you have to work in teams and need to involve parents. We have centers in Bogota in neighborhoods where all the armed groups were present, and at first parents didn’t want to send their children because they would sit with children from another armed group. All our centers are considered “white spaces”– parents agreed with teachers that they are neutral ground. And now they celebrate Father’s Day, or the Day of the Family, or other holidays. People come together and it’s becoming routine; hopefully this next generation won’t be so violent.

CSG: Tell me about the ECD curriculum you designed. I like that it literally comes in a box!

NM: It’s called the Cartografia Curricular, because each teacher is like a traveler and we give them the map. We standardized the process but not the activities. We developed the curriculum over several years, then received funding from the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) so we could translate it to English and have it evaluated. Ellen Frede at Rutgers University in the US worked with us for almost a year revising it, so now we feel it’s really solid.

CSG: Is this only used in aeioTU centers?

NM: In 2016, we changed our strategy and decided to share our knowledge with others to reach more children. The teachers don’t have to be aeioTU employees to implement the aeioTU curriculum, they just have to want to do it well.

Our foundation board also approved sharing the aeioTU curriculum for free, so we are looking at partnerships in Brazil and other countries where we would need to translate. For now, it’s available only in Spanish.

CSG:  How is government support for ECD in Colombia?

NM: ECD has become more important in the public policy agenda: there’s a law and a federal budget, but it’s not yet on the level of primary school. The local governments are not investing as much. While support is there, funding is still insufficient and unstable. Sometimes you have funding for expansion or training, sometimes not.

When schools and centers receive funds, they often don’t know which curriculum to use, which materials to buy. We need to do a lot of training on how to run a high-quality educational operation.

CSG: You say you provide ECD starting from pregnancy. How does that work?

NM: We sign up children when the mother is pregnant, and form groups of 20 pregnant women for each teacher. These travelling teachers go to the homes and work with the parents to get them ready for what is coming: What are the nine months of pregnancy? What’s happening within them and the child?

“We need to work a lot with the family in Colombia, empower them, give them tools.”

We work with whoever is around the mother: sometimes it’s the grandmother, sometimes a friend. And we create this group of women who meet every week at the center, or a bookstore, or they watch a movie together. We start preparing the social connection between them which exists in high-income communities quite often but not in low-income communities.

CSG: You start preparing families to behave differently even before the child is there?

NM: We need to work a lot with the family in Colombia, empower them, give them tools. They need to understand their roles and all the things they can do. The singer Shakira, together with Fisher Price toys, asked us to create tips for families so we wrote 1,000 tips and give away those lists. We create activities in the parks, with museums, get the parents to play more, read more, be more available for children.

It’s a big change, but Colombia is modern in its thinking. We’re not as traditional as other countries in the region. And as children and families learn what quality means, they will help us fight within the schools to achieve it.

Nathalia Mesa is Chairman of aeioTU, a social enterprise that provides high-quality early childhood development (ECD) in its 30 ECD centers across Colombia. She is one of the ten recipients of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards, which are bestowed to social innovators and change makers in the field of child and youth development.

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